The Great Boer War by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Great Boer War Preface To The Final Edition
The Great Boer War Chapter I. The Boer Nations
The Great Boer War Chapter II. The Cause Of Quarrel
The Great Boer War Chapter III. The Negotiations
The Great Boer War Chapter IV. The Eve Of War
The Great Boer War Chapter V. Talana Hill
The Great Boer War Chapter VI. Elandslaagte And Rietfontein
The Great Boer War Chapter VII. The Battle Of Ladysmith
The Great Boer War Chapter VIII. Lord Methuen’s Advance
The Great Boer War Chapter IX. Battle Of Magersfontein
The Great Boer War Chapter X. The Battle Of Stormberg
The Great Boer War Chapter XI. Battle Of Colenso
The Great Boer War Chapter XII. The Dark Hour
The Great Boer War Chapter XIII. The Siege Of Ladysmith
The Great Boer War Chapter XIV. The Colesberg Operations
The Great Boer War Chapter XV. Spion Kop
The Great Boer War Chapter XVI. Vaalkranz
The Great Boer War Chapter XVII. Buller’s Final Advance
The Great Boer War Chapter XVIII. The Siege And Relief Of Kimberley
The Great Boer War Chapter XIX. Paardeberg
The Great Boer War Chapter XX. Roberts’s Advance On Bloemfontein
The Great Boer War Chapter XXI. Strategic Effects Of Lord Roberts’s March
The Great Boer War Chapter XXII. The Halt At Bloemfontein
The Great Boer War Chapter XXIII. The Clearing Of The South-East
The Great Boer War Chapter XXIV. The Siege Of Mafeking
The Great Boer War Chapter XXV. The March On Pretoria
The Great Boer War Chapter XXVI. Diamond Hill—Rundle’s Operations
The Great Boer War Chapter XXVII. The Lines Of Communication
The Great Boer War Chapter XXVIII. The Halt At Pretoria
The Great Boer War Chapter XXIX. The Advance To Komatipoort
The Great Boer War Chapter XXX. The Campaign Of De Wet
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXI. The Guerilla Warfare In The Transvaal: Nooitgedacht
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXII. The Second Invasion Of Cape Colony
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXIII. The Northern Operations From January To April, 1901
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXIV. The Winter Campaign (April To September, 1901)
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXV. The Guerilla Operations In Cape Colony
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXVI. The Spring Campaign (September To December, 1901)
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXVII. The Campaign Of January To April, 1902
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXVIII. De La Rey’s Campaign Of 1902
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXIX. The End
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXI. The Guerilla Warfare In The Transvaal: Nooitgedacht
Leaving De Wet in the Ficksburg mountains, where he lurked until after the opening of the New Year, the story of the scattered operations in the Transvaal may now be carried down to the same point—a story comprising many skirmishes and one considerable engagement, but so devoid of any central thread that it is difficult to know how to approach it. From Lichtenburg to Komati, a distance of four hundred miles, there was sporadic warfare everywhere, attacks upon scattered posts, usually beaten off but occasionally successful, attacks upon convoys, attacks upon railway trains, attacks upon anything and everything which could harass the invaders. Each General in his own district had his own work of repression to perform, and so we had best trace the doings of each up to the end of the year 1900.
Lord Methuen after his pursuit of De Wet in August had gone to Mafeking to refit. From that point, with a force which contained a large proportion of yeomanry and of Australian bushmen, he conducted a long series of operations in the difficult and important district which lies between Rustenburg, Lichtenburg, and Zeerust. Several strong and mobile Boer commandos with guns moved about in it, and an energetic though not very deadly warfare raged between Lemmer, Snyman, and De la Rey on the one side, and the troops of Methuen, Douglas, Broadwood, and Lord Errol upon the other. Methuen moved about incessantly through the broken country, winning small skirmishes and suffering the indignity of continual sniping. From time to time he captured stores, wagons, and small bodies of prisoners. Early in October he and Douglas had successes. On the 15th Broadwood was engaged. On the 20th there was a convoy action. On the 25th Methuen had a success and twenty-eight prisoners. On November 9th he surprised Snyman and took thirty prisoners. On the 10th he got a pom-pom. Early in this month Douglas separated from Methuen, and marched south from Zeerust through Ventersdorp to Klerksdorp, passing over a country which had been hardly touched before, and arriving at his goal with much cattle and some prisoners. Towards the end of the month a considerable stock of provisions were conveyed to Zeerust, and a garrison left to hold that town so as to release Methuen’s column for service elsewhere.
Hart’s sphere of action was originally round Potchefstroom. On September 9th he made a fine forced march to surprise this town, which had been left some time before with an entirely inadequate garrison to fall into the hands of the enemy. His infantry covered thirty-six and his cavalry fifty-four miles in fifteen hours. The operation was a complete success, the town with eighty Boers falling into his hands with little opposition. On September 30th Hart returned to Krugersdorp, where, save for one skirmish upon the Gatsrand on November 22nd, he appears to have had no actual fighting to do during the remainder of the year.
After the clearing of the eastern border of the Transvaal by the movement of Pole-Carew along the railway line, and of Buller aided by Ian Hamilton in the mountainous country to the north of it, there were no operations of importance in this district. A guard was kept upon the frontier to prevent the return of refugees and the smuggling of ammunition, while General Kitchener, the brother of the Sirdar, broke up a few small Boer laagers in the neighbourhood of Lydenburg. Smith-Dorrien guarded the line at Belfast, and on two occasions, November 1st and November 6th, he made aggressive movements against the enemy. The first, which was a surprise executed in concert with Colonel Spens of the Shropshires, was frustrated by a severe blizzard, which prevented the troops from pushing home their success. The second was a two days’ expedition, which met with a spirited opposition, and demands a fuller notice.
This was made from Belfast, and the force, which consisted of about fourteen hundred men, advanced south to the Komati River. The infantry were Suffolks and Shropshires, the cavalry Canadians and 5th Lancers, with two Canadian guns and four of the 84th battery. All day the Boer snipers clung to the column, as they had done to French’s cavalry in the same district. Mere route marches without a very definite and adequate objective appear to be rather exasperating than overawing, for so long as the column is moving onwards the most timid farmer may be tempted into long-range fire from the flanks or rear. The river was reached and the Boers driven from a position which they had taken up, but their signal fires brought mounted riflemen from every farm, and the retreat of the troops was pressed as they returned to Belfast. There was all the material for a South African Lexington. The most difficult of military operations, the covering of a detachment from a numerous and aggressive enemy, was admirably carried out by the Canadian gunners and dragoons under the command of Colonel Lessard. So severe was the pressure that sixteen of the latter were for a time in the hands of the enemy, who attempted something in the nature of a charge upon the steadfast rearguard. The movement was repulsed, and the total Boer loss would appear to have been considerable, since two of their leaders, Commandant Henry Prinsloo and General Joachim Fourie, were killed, while General Johann Grobler was wounded. If the rank and file suffered in proportion the losses must have been severe. The British casualties in the two days amounted to eight killed and thirty wounded, a small total when the arduous nature of the service is considered. The Canadians and the Shropshires seem to have borne off the honours of these trying operations.
In the second week of October, General French, with three brigades of cavalry (Dickson’s, Gordon’s, and Mahon’s), started for a cross-country ride from Machadodorp. Three brigades may seem an imposing force, but the actual numbers did not exceed two strong regiments, or about 1500 sabres in all. A wing of the Suffolk Regiment went with them. On October 13th Mahon’s brigade met with a sharp resistance, and lost ten killed and twenty-nine wounded. On the 14th the force entered Carolina. On the 16th they lost six killed and twenty wounded, and from the day that they started until they reached Heidelberg on the 27th there was never a day that they could shake themselves clear of their attendant snipers. The total losses of the force were about ninety killed and wounded, but they brought in sixty prisoners and a large quantity of cattle and stores. The march had at least the effect of making it clear that the passage of a column of troops encumbered with baggage through a hostile country is an inefficient means for quelling a popular resistance. Light and mobile parties acting from a central depot were in future to be employed, with greater hopes of success.
Some appreciable proportion of the British losses during this phase of the war arose from railway accidents caused by the persistent tampering with the lines. In the first ten days of October there were four such mishaps, in which two Sappers, twenty-three of the Guards (Coldstreams), and eighteen of the 66th battery were killed or wounded. On the last occasion, which occurred on October 10th near Vlakfontein, the reinforcements who came to aid the sufferers were themselves waylaid, and lost twenty, mostly of the Rifle Brigade, killed, wounded, or prisoners. Hardly a day elapsed that the line was not cut at some point. The bringing of supplies was complicated by the fact that the Boer women and children were coming more and more into refugee camps, where they had to be fed by the British, and the strange spectacle was frequently seen of Boer snipers killing or wounding the drivers and stokers of the very trains which were bringing up food upon which Boer families were dependent for their lives. Considering that these tactics were continued for over a year, and that they resulted in the death or mutilation of many hundreds of British officers and men, it is really inexplicable that the British authorities did not employ the means used by all armies under such circumstances—which is to place hostages upon the trains. A truckload of Boers behind every engine would have stopped the practice for ever. Again and again in this war the British have fought with the gloves when their opponents used their knuckles.
We will pass now to a consideration of the doings of General Paget, who was operating to the north and north-east of Pretoria with a force which consisted of two regiments of infantry, about a thousand horsemen, and twelve guns. His mounted men were under the command of Plumer. In the early part of November this force had been withdrawn from Warm Baths and had fallen back upon Pienaar’s River, where it had continual skirmishes with the enemy. Towards the end of November, news having reached Pretoria that the enemy under Erasmus and Viljoen were present in force at a place called Rhenoster Kop, which is about twenty miles north of the Delagoa Railway line and fifty miles north-east of the capital, it was arranged that Paget should attack them from the south, while Lyttelton from Middelburg should endeavour to get behind them. The force with which Paget started upon this enterprise was not a very formidable one. He had for mounted troops some Queensland, South Australian, New Zealand, and Tasmanian Bushmen, together with the York, Montgomery, and Warwick Yeomanry. His infantry were the 1st West Riding regiment and four companies of the Munsters. His guns were the 7th and 38th batteries, with two naval quick-firing twelve-pounders and some smaller pieces. The total could not have exceeded some two thousand men. Here, as at other times, it is noticeable that in spite of the two hundred thousand soldiers whom the British kept in the field, the lines of communication absorbed so many that at the actual point of contact they were seldom superior and often inferior in numbers to the enemy. The opening of the Natal and Delagoa lines though valuable in many ways, had been an additional drain. Where every culvert needs its picket and every bridge its company, the guardianship of many hundreds of miles of rail is no light matter.
In the early morning of November 29th Paget’s men came in contact with the enemy, who were in some force upon an admirable position. A ridge for their centre, a flanking kopje for their cross fire, and a grass glacis for the approach—it was an ideal Boer battlefield. The colonials and the yeomanry under Plumer on the left, and Hickman on the right, pushed in upon them, until it was evident that they meant to hold their ground. Their advance being checked by a very severe fire, the horsemen dismounted and took such cover as they could. Paget’s original idea had been a turning movement, but the Boers were the more numerous body, and it was impossible for the smaller British force to find their flanks, for they extended over at least seven miles. The infantry were moved up into the centre, therefore, between the wings of dismounted horsemen, and the guns were brought up to cover the advance. The country was ill-suited, however, to the use of artillery, and it was only possible to use an indirect fire from under a curve of the grass land. The guns made good practice, however, one section of the 38th battery being in action all day within 800 yards of the Boer line, and putting themselves out of action after 300 rounds by the destruction of their own rifling. Once over the curve every yard of the veld was commanded by the hidden riflemen. The infantry advanced, but could make no headway against the deadly fire which met them. By short rushes the attack managed to get within 300 yards of the enemy, and there it stuck. On the right the Munsters carried a detached kopje which was in front of them, but could do little to aid the main attack. Nothing could have exceeded the tenacity of the Yorkshiremen and the New Zealanders, who were immediately to their left. Though unable to advance they refused to retire, and indeed they were in a position from which a retirement would have been a serious operation. Colonel Lloyd of the West Ridings was hit in three places and killed. Five out of six officers of the New Zealand corps were struck down. There were no reserves to give a fresh impetus to the attack, and the thin scattered line, behind bullet-spotted stones or anthills, could but hold its own while the sun sank slowly upon a day which will not be forgotten by those who endured it. The Boers were reinforced in the afternoon, and the pressure became so severe that the field guns were retired with much difficulty. Many of the infantry had shot away all their cartridges and were helpless. Just one year before British soldiers had lain under similar circumstances on the plain which leads to Modder River, and now on a smaller scale the very same drama was being enacted. Gradually the violet haze of evening deepened into darkness, and the incessant rattle of the rifle fire died away on either side. Again, as at Modder River, the British infantry still lay in their position, determined to take no backward step, and again the Boers stole away in the night, leaving the ridge which they had defended so well. A hundred killed and wounded was the price paid by the British for that line of rock studded hills—a heavier proportion of losses than had befallen Lord Methuen in the corresponding action. Of the Boer losses there was as usual no means of judging, but several grave-mounds, newly dug, showed that they also had something to deplore. Their retreat, however, was not due to exhaustion, but to the demonstration which Lyttelton had been able to make in their rear. The gunners and the infantry had all done well in a most trying action, but by common consent it was with the men from New Zealand that the honours lay. It was no empty compliment when Sir Alfred Milner telegraphed to the Premier of New Zealand his congratulations upon the distinguished behaviour of his fellow countrymen.
From this time onwards there was nothing of importance in this part of the seat of war.
It is necessary now to turn from the north-east to the north-west of Pretoria, where the presence of De la Rey and the cover afforded by the Magaliesberg mountains had kept alive the Boer resistance. Very rugged lines of hill, alternating with fertile valleys, afforded a succession of forts and of granaries to the army which held them. To General Clements’ column had been committed the task of clearing this difficult piece of country. His force fluctuated in numbers, but does not appear at any time to have consisted of more than three thousand men, which comprised the Border Regiment, the Yorkshire Light Infantry, the second Northumberland Fusiliers, mounted infantry, yeomanry, the 8th R.F.A., P battery R.H.A., and one heavy gun. With this small army he moved about the district, breaking up Boer bands, capturing supplies, and bringing in refugees. On November 13th he was at Krugersdorp, the southern extremity of his beat. On the 24th he was moving north again, and found himself as he approached the hills in the presence of a force of Boers with cannon. This was the redoubtable De la Rey, who sometimes operated in Methuen’s country to the north of the Magaliesberg, and sometimes to the south. He had now apparently fixed upon Clements as his definite opponent. De la Rey was numerically inferior, and Clements had no difficulty in this first encounter in forcing him back with some loss. On November 26th Clements was back at Krugersdorp again with cattle and prisoners. In the early days of December he was moving northwards once more, where a serious disaster awaited him. Before narrating the circumstances connected with the Battle of Nooitgedacht there is one incident which occurred in this same region which should be recounted.
This consists of the determined attack made by a party of De la Rey’s men, upon December 3rd, on a convoy which was proceeding from Pretoria to Rustenburg, and had got as far as Buffel’s Hoek. The convoy was a very large one, consisting of 150 wagons, which covered about three miles upon the march. It was guarded by two companies of the West Yorkshires, two guns of the 75th battery, and a handful of the Victoria Mounted Rifles. The escort appears entirely inadequate when it is remembered that these stores, which were of great value, were being taken through a country which was known to be infested by the enemy. What might have been foreseen occurred. Five hundred Boers suddenly rode down upon the helpless line of wagons and took possession of them. The escort rallied, however, upon a kopje, and, though attacked all day, succeeded in holding their own until help arrived. They prevented the Boers from destroying or carrying off as much of the convoy as was under their guns, but the rest was looted and burned. The incident was a most unfortunate one, as it supplied the enemy with a large quantity of stores, of which they were badly in need. It was the more irritating as it was freely rumoured that a Boer attack was pending; and there is evidence that a remonstrance was addressed from the convoy before it left Rietfontein to the General of the district, pointing out the danger to which it was exposed. The result was the loss of 120 wagons and of more than half the escort. The severity of the little action and the hardihood of the defence are indicated by the fact that the small body who held the kopje lost fifteen killed and twenty-two wounded, the gunners losing nine out of fifteen. A relieving force appeared at the close of the action, but no vigorous pursuit was attempted, although the weather was wet and the Boers had actually carried away sixty loaded wagons, which could only go very slowly. It must be confessed that from its feckless start to its spiritless finish the story of the Buffel’s Hoek convoy is not a pleasant one to tell.
Clements, having made his way once more to the Magaliesberg range, had pitched his camp at a place called Nooitgedacht—not to be confused with the post upon the Delagoa Railway at which the British prisoners had been confined. Here, in the very shadow of the mountain, he halted for five days, during which, with the usual insouciance of British commanders, he does not seem to have troubled himself with any entrenching. He knew, no doubt, that he was too strong for his opponent De la Rey, but what he did not know, but might have feared, was that a second Boer force might appear suddenly upon the scene and join with De la Rey in order to crush him. This second Boer force was that of Commandant Beyers from Warm Baths. By a sudden and skilful movement the two united, and fell like a thunderbolt upon the British column, which was weakened by the absence of the Border Regiment. The result was such a reverse as the British had not sustained since Sanna’s Post—a reverse which showed that, though no regular Boer army might exist, still a sudden coalition of scattered bands could at any time produce a force which would be dangerous to any British column which might be taken at a disadvantage. We had thought that the days of battles in this war were over, but an action which showed a missing and casualty roll of 550 proved that in this, as in so many other things, we were mistaken.
As already stated, the camp of Clements lay under a precipitous cliff, upon the summit of which he had placed four companies of the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers. This strong post was a thousand feet higher than the camp. Below lay the main body of the force, two more companies of fusiliers, four of Yorkshire Light Infantry, the 2nd Mounted Infantry, Kitchener’s Horse, yeomanry, and the artillery. The latter consisted of one heavy naval gun, four guns of the 8th R.F.A., and P battery R.H.A. The whole force amounted to about fifteen hundred men.
It was just at the first break of dawn—the hour of fate in South African warfare—that the battle began. The mounted infantry post between the camp and the mountains were aware of moving figures in front of them. In the dim light they could discern that they were clothed in grey, and that they wore the broad-brimmed hats and feathers of some of our own irregular corps. They challenged, and the answer was a shattering volley, instantly returned by the survivors of the picket. So hot was the Boer attack that before help could come every man save one of the picket was on the ground. The sole survivor, Daley of the Dublins, took no backward step, but continued to steadily load and fire until help came from the awakened camp. There followed a savage conflict at point blank-range. The mounted infantry men, rushing half clad to the support of their comrades, were confronted by an ever-thickening swarm of Boer riflemen, who had already, by working round on the flank, established their favourite cross fire. Legge, the leader of the mounted infantry, a hard little Egyptian veteran, was shot through the head, and his men lay thick around him. For some minutes it was as hot a corner as any in the war. But Clements himself had appeared upon the scene, and his cool gallantry turned the tide of fight. An extension of the line checked the cross fire, and gave the British in turn a flanking position. Gradually the Boer riflemen were pushed back, until at last they broke and fled for their horses in the rear. A small body were cut off, many of whom were killed and wounded, while a few were taken prisoners.
This stiff fight of an hour had ended in a complete repulse of the attack, though at a considerable cost. Both Boers and British had lost heavily. Nearly all the staff were killed or wounded, though General Clements had come through untouched. Fifty or sixty of both sides had fallen. But it was noted as an ominous fact that in spite of shell fire the Boers still lingered upon the western flank. Were they coming on again? They showed no signs of it. And yet they waited in groups, and looked up towards the beetling crags above them. What were they waiting for? The sudden crash of a murderous Mauser fire upon the summit, with the rolling volleys of the British infantry, supplied the answer.
Only now must it have been clear to Clements that he was not dealing merely with some spasmodic attack from his old enemy De la Rey, but that this was a largely conceived movement, in which a force at least double the strength of his own had suddenly been concentrated upon him. His camp was still menaced by the men whom he had repulsed, and he could not weaken it by sending reinforcements up the hill. But the roar of the musketry was rising louder and louder. It was becoming clearer that there was the main attack. It was a Majuba Hill action up yonder, a thick swarm of skirmishers closing in from many sides upon a central band of soldiers. But the fusiliers were hopelessly outnumbered, and this rock fighting is that above all others in which the Boer has an advantage over the regular. A helio on the hill cried for help. The losses were heavy, it said, and the assailants numerous. The Boers closed swiftly in upon the flanks, and the fusiliers were no match for their assailants. Till the very climax the helio still cried that they were being overpowered, and it is said that even while working it the soldier in charge was hurled over the cliff by the onrush of the victorious Boers.
The fight of the mounted infantry men had been at half-past four. At six the attack upon the hill had developed, and Clements in response to those frantic flashes of light had sent up a hundred men of the yeomanry, from the Fife and Devon squadrons, as a reinforcement. To climb a precipitous thousand feet with rifle, bandolier, and spurs, is no easy feat, yet that roar of battle above them heartened them upon their way. But in spite of all their efforts they were only in time to share the general disaster. The head of the line of hard-breathing yeomen reached the plateau just as the Boers, sweeping over the remnants of the Northumberland Fusiliers, reached the brink of the cliff. One by one the yeomen darted over the edge, and endeavoured to find some cover in the face of an infernal point-blank fire. Captain Mudie of the staff, who went first, was shot down. So was Purvis of the Fifes, who followed him. The others, springing over their bodies, rushed for a small trench, and tried to restore the fight. Lieutenant Campbell, a gallant young fellow, was shot dead as he rallied his men. Of twenty-seven of the Fifeshires upon the hill six were killed and eleven wounded. The statistics of the Devons are equally heroic. Those yeomen who had not yet reached the crest were in a perfectly impossible position, as the Boers were firing from complete cover right down upon them. There was no alternative for them but surrender. By seven o’clock every British soldier upon the hill, yeoman or fusilier, had been killed, wounded, or taken. It is not true that the supply of cartridges ran out, and the fusiliers, with the ill-luck which has pursued the 2nd battalion, were outnumbered and outfought by better skirmishers than themselves.
Seldom has a General found himself in a more trying position than Clements, or extricated himself more honourably. Not only had he lost nearly half his force, but his camp was no longer tenable, and his whole army was commanded by the fringe of deadly rifles upon the cliff. From the berg to the camp was from 800 to 1000 yards, and a sleet of bullets whistled down upon it. How severe was the fire may be gauged from the fact that the little pet monkey belonging to the yeomanry—a small enough object—was hit three times, though he lived to survive as a battle-scarred veteran. Those wounded in the early action found themselves in a terrible position, laid out in the open under a withering fire, ‘like helpless Aunt Sallies,’ as one of them described it. ‘We must get a red flag up, or we shall be blown off the face of the earth,’ says the same correspondent, a corporal of the Ceylon Mounted Infantry. ‘We had a pillow-case, but no red paint. Then we saw what would do instead, so they made the upright with my blood, and the horizontal with Paul’s.’ It is pleasant to add that this grim flag was respected by the Boers. Bullocks and mules fell in heaps, and it was evident that the question was not whether the battle could be restored, but whether the guns could be saved. Leaving a fringe of yeomen, mounted infantry, and Kitchener’s Horse to stave off the Boers, who were already descending by the same steep kloof up which the yeomen had climbed, the General bent all his efforts to getting the big naval gun out of danger. Only six oxen were left out of a team of forty, and so desperate did the situation appear that twice dynamite was placed beneath the gun to destroy it. Each time, however, the General intervened, and at last, under a stimulating rain of pom-pom shells, the great cannon lurched slowly forward, quickening its pace as the men pulled on the drag-ropes, and the six oxen broke into a wheezy canter. Its retreat was covered by the smaller guns which rained shrapnel upon the crest of the hill, and upon the Boers who were descending to the camp. Once the big gun was out of danger, the others limbered up and followed, their rear still covered by the staunch mounted infantry, with whom rest all the honours of the battle. Cookson and Brooks with 250 men stood for hours between Clements and absolute disaster. The camp was abandoned as it stood, and all the stores, four hundred picketed horses, and, most serious of all, two wagons of ammunition, fell into the hands of the victors. To have saved all his guns, however, after the destruction of half his force by an active enemy far superior to him in numbers and in mobility, was a feat which goes far to condone the disaster, and to increase rather than to impair the confidence which his troops feel in General Clements. Having retreated for a couple of miles he turned his big gun round upon the hill, which is called Yeomanry Hill, and opened fire upon the camp, which was being looted by swarms of Boers. So bold a face did he present that he was able to remain with his crippled force upon Yeomanry Hill from about nine until four in the afternoon, and no attack was pressed home, though he lay under both shell and rifle fire all day. At four in the afternoon he began his retreat, which did not cease till he had reached Rietfontein, twenty miles off, at six o’clock upon the following morning. His weary men had been working for twenty-six hours, and actually fighting for fourteen, but the bitterness of defeat was alleviated by the feeling that every man, from the General downwards, had done all that was possible, and that there was every prospect of their having a chance before long of getting their own back.
The British losses at the battle of Nooitgedacht amounted to 60 killed, 180 wounded, and 315 prisoners, all of whom were delivered up a few days later at Rustenburg. Of the Boer losses it is, as usual, impossible to speak with confidence, but all the evidence points to their actual casualties being as heavy as those of the British. There was the long struggle at the camp in which they were heavily punished, the fight on the mountain, where they exposed themselves with unusual recklessness, and the final shelling from shrapnel and from lyddite. All accounts agree that their attack was more open than usual. ‘They were mowed down in twenties that day, but it had no effect. They stood like fanatics,’ says one who fought against them. From first to last their conduct was most gallant, and great credit is due to their leaders for the skilful sudden concentration by which they threw their whole strength upon the exposed force. Some eighty miles separate Warm Baths from Nooitgedacht, and it seems strange that our Intelligence Department should have remained in ignorance of so large a movement.
General Broadwood’s 2nd Cavalry Brigade had been stationed to the north of Magaliesberg, some twelve miles westward of Clements, and formed the next link in the long chain of British forces. Broadwood does not appear, however, to have appreciated the importance of the engagement, and made no energetic movement to take part in it. If Colvile is open to the charge of having been slow to ‘march upon the cannon’ at Sanna’s Post, it might be urged that Broadwood in turn showed some want of energy and judgment upon this occasion. On the morning of the 13th his force could hear the heavy firing to the eastward, and could even see the shells bursting on the top of the Magaliesberg. It was but ten or twelve miles distant, and, as his Elswick guns have a range of nearly five, a very small advance would have enabled him to make a demonstration against the flank of the Boers, and so to relieve the pressure upon Clements. It is true that his force was not large, but it was exceptionally mobile. Whatever the reasons, no effective advance was made by Broadwood. On hearing the result he fell back upon Rustenburg, the nearest British post, his small force being dangerously isolated.
Those who expected that General Clements would get his own back had not long to wait. In a few days he was in the field again. The remains of his former force had, however, been sent into Pretoria to refit, and nothing remained of it save the 8th R.F.A. and the indomitable cow-gun still pocked with the bullets of Nooitgedacht. He had also F battery R.H.A., the Inniskillings, the Border regiment, and a force of mounted infantry under Alderson. More important than all, however, was the co-operation of General French, who came out from Pretoria to assist in the operations. On the 19th, only six days after his defeat, Clements found himself on the very same spot fighting some at least of the very same men. This time, however, there was no element of surprise, and the British were able to approach the task with deliberation and method. The result was that both upon the 19th and 20th the Boers were shelled out of successive positions with considerable loss, and driven altogether away from that part of the Magaliesberg. Shortly afterwards General Clements was recalled to Pretoria, to take over the command of the 7th Division, General Tucker having been appointed to the military command of Bloemfontein in the place of the gallant Hunter, who, to the regret of the whole army, was invalided home. General Cunningham henceforward commanded the column which Clements had led back to the Magaliesberg.
Upon November 13th the first of a series of attacks was made upon the posts along the Delagoa Railway line. These were the work of Viljoen’s commando, who, moving swiftly from the north, threw themselves upon the small garrisons of Balmoral and of Wilge River, stations which are about six miles apart. At the former was a detachment of the Buffs, and at the latter of the Royal Fusiliers. The attack was well delivered, but in each instance was beaten back with heavy loss to the assailants. A picket of the Buffs was captured at the first rush, and the detachment lost six killed and nine wounded. No impression was made upon the position, however, and the double attack seems to have cost the Boers a large number of casualties.
Another incident calling for some mention was the determined attack made by the Boers upon the town of Vryheid, in the extreme south-east of the Transvaal near the Natal border. Throughout November this district had been much disturbed, and the small British garrison had evacuated the town and taken up a position on the adjacent hills. Upon December 11th the Boers attempted to carry the trenches. The garrison of the town appears to have consisted of the 2nd Royal Lancaster regiment, some five hundred strong, a party of the Lancashire Fusiliers, 150 strong, and fifty men of the Royal Garrison Artillery, with a small body of mounted infantry. They held a hill about half a mile north of the town, and commanding it. The attack, which was a surprise in the middle of the night, broke upon the pickets of the British, who held their own in a way which may have been injudicious but was certainly heroic. Instead of falling back when seriously attacked, the young officers in charge of these outposts refused to move, and were speedily under such a fire that it was impossible to reinforce them. There were four outposts, under Woodgate, Theobald, Lippert, and Mangles. The attack at 2.15 on a cold dark morning began at the post held by Woodgate, the Boers coming hand-to-hand before they were detected. Woodgate, who was unarmed at the instant, seized a hammer, and rushed at the nearest Boer, but was struck by two bullets and killed. His post was dispersed or taken. Theobald and Lippert, warned by the firing, held on behind their sangars, and were ready for the storm which burst over them. Lippert was unhappily killed, and his ten men all hit or taken, but young Theobald held his own under a heavy fire for twelve hours. Mangles also, the gallant son of a gallant father, held his post all day with the utmost tenacity. The troops in the trenches behind were never seriously pressed, thanks to the desperate resistance of the outposts, but Colonel Gawne of the Lancasters was unfortunately killed. Towards evening the Boers abandoned the attack, leaving fourteen of their number dead upon the ground, from which it may be guessed that their total casualties were not less than a hundred. The British losses were three officers and five men killed, twenty-two men wounded, and thirty men with one officer missing—the latter being the survivors of those outposts which were overwhelmed by the Boer advance.
A few incidents stand out among the daily bulletins of snipings, skirmishes, and endless marchings which make the dull chronicle of these, the last months of the year 1900. These must be enumerated without any attempt at connecting them. The first is the long-drawn-out siege or investment of Schweizer-Renecke. This small village stands upon the Harts River, on the western border of the Transvaal. It is not easy to understand why the one party should desire to hold, or the other to attack, a position so insignificant. From August 19th onwards it was defended by a garrison of 250 men, under the very capable command of Colonel Chamier, who handled a small business in a way which marks him as a leader. The Boer force, which varied in numbers from five hundred to a thousand, never ventured to push home an attack, for Chamier, fresh from the experience of Kimberley, had taken such precautions that his defences were formidable, if not impregnable. Late in September a relieving force under Colonel Settle threw fresh supplies into the town, but when he passed on upon his endless march the enemy closed in once more, and the siege was renewed. It lasted for several months, until a column withdrew the garrison and abandoned the position.
Of all the British detachments, the two which worked hardest and marched furthest during this period of the war was the 21st Brigade (Derbyshires, Sussex, and Camerons) under General Bruce Hamilton, and the column under Settle, which operated down the western border of the Orange River Colony, and worked round and round with such pertinacity that it was familiarly known as Settle’s Imperial Circus. Much hard and disagreeable work, far more repugnant to the soldier than the actual dangers of war, fell to the lot of Bruce Hamilton and his men. With Kroonstad as their centre they were continually working through the dangerous Lindley and Heilbron districts, returning to the railway line only to start again immediately upon a fresh quest. It was work for mounted police, not for infantry soldiers, but what they were given to do they did to the best of their ability. Settle’s men had a similar thankless task. From the neighbourhood of Kimberley he marched in November with his small column down the border of the Orange River Colony, capturing supplies and bringing in refugees. He fought one brisk action with Hertzog’s commando at Kloof, and then, making his way across the colony, struck the railway line again at Edenburg on December 7th, with a train of prisoners and cattle.
Rundle also had put in much hard work in his efforts to control the difficult district in the north-east of the Colony which had been committed to his care. He traversed in November from north to south the same country which he had already so painfully traversed from south to north. With occasional small actions he moved about from Vrede to Reitz, and so to Bethlehem and Harrismith. On him, as on all other commanders, the vicious system of placing small garrisons in the various towns imposed a constant responsibility lest they should be starved or overwhelmed.
The year and the century ended by a small reverse to the British arms in the Transvaal. This consisted in the capture of a post at Helvetia defended by a detachment of the Liverpool Regiment and by a 4.7 gun. Lydenburg, being seventy miles off the railway line, had a chain of posts connecting it with the junction at Machadodorp. These posts were seven in number, ten miles apart, each defended by 250 men. Of these Helvetia was the second. The key of the position was a strongly fortified hill about three-quarters of a mile from the headquarter camp, and commanding it. This post was held by Captain Kirke with forty garrison artillery to work the big gun, and seventy Liverpool infantry. In spite of the barbed-wire entanglements, the Boers most gallantly rushed this position, and their advance was so rapid, or the garrison so slow, that the place was carried with hardly a shot fired. Major Cotton, who commanded the main lines, found himself deprived in an instant of nearly half his force and fiercely attacked by a victorious and exultant enemy. His position was much too extended for the small force at his disposal, and the line of trenches was pierced and enfiladed at many points. It must be acknowledged that the defences were badly devised—little barbed wire, frail walls, large loopholes, and the outposts so near the trenches that the assailants could reach them as quickly as the supports. With the dawn Cotton’s position was serious, if not desperate. He was not only surrounded, but was commanded from Gun Hill. Perhaps it would have been wiser if, after being wounded, he had handed over the command to Jones, his junior officer. A stricken man’s judgement can never be so sound as that of the hale. However that may be, he came to the conclusion that the position was untenable, and that it was best to prevent further loss of life. Fifty of the Liverpools were killed and wounded, 200 taken. No ammunition of the gun was captured, but the Boers were able to get safely away with this humiliating evidence of their victory. One post, under Captain Wilkinson with forty men, held out with success, and harassed the enemy in their retreat. As at Dewetsdorp and at Nooitgedacht, the Boers were unable to retain their prisoners, so that the substantial fruits of their enterprise were small, but it forms none the less one more of those incidents which may cause us to respect our enemy and to be critical towards ourselves. [Footnote: Considering that Major Stapelton Cotton was himself wounded in three places during the action (one of these wounds being in the head), he has had hard measure in being deprived of his commission by a court-martial which sat eight months after the event. It is to be earnestly hoped that there may be some revision of this severe sentence.]
In the last few months of the year some of those corps which had served their time or which were needed elsewhere were allowed to leave the seat of war. By the middle of November the three different corps of the City Imperial Volunteers, the two Canadian contingents, Lumsden’s Horse, the Composite Regiment of Guards, six hundred Australians, A battery R.H.A., and the volunteer companies of the regular regiments, were all homeward bound. This loss of several thousand veteran troops before the war was over was to be deplored, and though unavoidable in the case of volunteer contingents, it is difficult to explain where regular troops are concerned. Early in the new year the Government was compelled to send out strong reinforcements to take their place.
Early in December Lord Roberts also left the country, to take over the duties of Commander-in-Chief. High as his reputation stood when, in January, he landed at Cape Town, it is safe to say that it had been immensely enhanced when, ten months later, he saw from the quarter-deck of the ‘Canada’ the Table Mountain growing dimmer in the distance. He found a series of disconnected operations, in which we were uniformly worsted. He speedily converted them into a series of connected operations in which we were almost uniformly successful. Proceeding to the front at the beginning of February, within a fortnight he had relieved Kimberley, within a month he had destroyed Cronje’s force, and within six weeks he was in Bloemfontein. Then, after a six weeks’ halt which could not possibly have been shortened, he made another of his tiger leaps, and within a month had occupied Johannesburg and Pretoria. From that moment the issue of the campaign was finally settled, and though a third leap was needed, which carried him to Komatipoort, and though brave and obstinate men might still struggle against their destiny, he had done what was essential, and the rest, however difficult, was only the detail of the campaign. A kindly gentleman, as well as a great soldier, his nature revolted from all harshness, and a worse man might have been a better leader in the last hopeless phases of the war. He remembered, no doubt, how Grant had given Lee’s army their horses, but Lee at the time had been thoroughly beaten, and his men had laid down their arms. A similar boon to the partially conquered Boers led to very different results, and the prolongation of the war is largely due to this act of clemency. At the same time political and military considerations were opposed to each other upon the point, and his moral position in the use of harsher measures is the stronger since a policy of conciliation had been tried and failed. Lord Roberts returned to London with the respect and love of his soldiers and of his fellow-countrymen. A passage from his farewell address to his troops may show the qualities which endeared him to them.
‘The service which the South African Force has performed is, I venture to think, unique in the annals of war, inasmuch as it has been absolutely almost incessant for a whole year, in some cases for more than a year. There has been no rest, no days off to recruit, no going into winter quarters, as in other campaigns which have extended over a long period. For months together, in fierce heat, in biting cold, in pouring rain, you, my comrades, have marched and fought without halt, and bivouacked without shelter from the elements. You frequently have had to continue marching with your clothes in rags and your boots without soles, time being of such consequence that it was impossible for you to remain long enough in one place to refit. When not engaged in actual battle you have been continually shot at from behind kopjes by invisible enemies to whom every inch of the country was familiar, and who, from the peculiar nature of the country, were able to inflict severe punishment while perfectly safe themselves. You have forced your way through dense jungles, over precipitous mountains, through and over which with infinite manual labour you have had to drag heavy guns and ox-wagons. You have covered with almost incredible speed enormous distances, and that often on very short supplies of food. You have endured the sufferings inevitable in war to sick and wounded men far from the base, without a murmur and even with cheerfulness.’
The words reflect honour both upon the troops addressed and upon the man who addressed them. From the middle of December 1900 Lord Kitchener took over the control of the campaign.